ODDFELLOWS AT THE SYDNEY FRINGE

Straight up, I’m going to tell you, I know all the people involved with this show very well. We are all part of the Sydney improvisation scene. In fact, I was once in a Cranston Cup Grand Final (the big annual Theatreports competition) on the Enmore stage with teammate and performer from this show, David Callan and two other cast mates (who will remain nameless to protect their identity and reputation). We were team favourites to take out the Cup. We had charmed our way into the Grand with our wit and banter. We were verbose and hilarious and nothing could stop us from taking out the prize, we could talk our way into high marks every time…

Round One- we were challenged by our biggest competition to a mime. A MIME! We crashed and burned so badly as David blindly wandered the stage with a cow mask on, I sat in a corner making sandwiches (not that you could tell what I was doing) and our other two team members wandered about aimlessly and none of us bothered to actually look at each other as the audience sat in stunned and awkward silence as the car wreck that was our team realised that elimination could not come quick enough. The judges put us out of our misery and honked us off the stage. I have never seen a scene on the Enmore stage or any theatresports stage that was ever as bad as our ‘Butcher’s Picnic’, the title of the mime. Ever since, ‘a butcher’s picnic’ is referred to in theatresports’ folklore as a scene that turns to shit.

Now, I don’t tell you this as a prelude to what I thought of this show. I tell you this because it’s the nature of improvisation (and, after some long and arduous therapy, I can now laugh at it). One moment you’re hot, the next moment, you can crash and burn. It’s part of the risk and excitement of making things up as you go and the reward and joy of when you find that simpatico on stage is electric. But you need to remember that it’s a transient thing and one dropped offer, one missed cue, one moment that goes on too long or not long enough, everything can change. It’s an incredibly difficult art form and not for the weak-hearted. It’s why I generally avoid reviewing improvisation because for every fabulous moment, there’s often a moment that doesn’t quite get there and add to that, there is no crowd tougher than a fellow group of improvisers, who recognise each moment for what it is and can judge from the easiest position in the house, in the audience. In improvisation, you have to risk failure and be allowed to experiment with all the variables that don’t exist in the same way as a rehearsed and scripted drama. 

So let me tell some of the really strong moments of ‘Oddfellows’, playing at the Old Fitz as part of the Sydney Fringe and starring David Callan and Marko Mustac with musician Bryce Halliday and directed by Jenny Hope. David and Marko know each other very well and have that simpatico on stage I referred to earlier. They bounce off each other’s ideas and create some entertaining and clever ideas. When I saw it they created a seedy underbelly of coffee roasters and took us on a journey that included a myriad of characters, statuses, ages, nationalities, and narratives. Some of those golden moments included the end scene where they were forced to play several characters at once during Enrique’s torture and liberation but they weren’t afraid to get serious either, with our chief protagonist’s ultimate demise. Some of Bryce Halliday’s musical underscore and narration really tapped into what the audience were thinking and even Damon Stef, up in the lighting box, worked to create appropriate atmosphere in each scene. I also note that David’s mime skills have come a long way…

The show didn’t always hit its strides. Sometimes the car was driving nicely along the road and I then it would stop, have the passengers emerge, go on a stroll along the riverbank before the journey continued. There were a few dropped moments, a few lost characters but as I said, it’s the nature of the form. The initial set up could have been clearer, so the audience were completely aware that this was improvised and not pre-scripted. Perhaps more scenes could have ventured away from the idea of ‘coffee’ so that we are more invested in how everything connects at the end but I do forgive them all of this because it was mostly a good and certainly an entertaining show, it was the opening night of a new format and it was a tough crowd of your peers. But these are two very experienced and talented improvisers and I think director Jenny Hope will help the boys smooth out the ruffles as she assists them to tune into the show’s structure, to find its beats and to utilise Bryce Halliday more.

I think you’ll enjoy what’s on offer if you like a bit of improvisation in your Fringe. Who knows what you’ll get each night? That’s part of its charm, the element of the unknown.

So take the risk. I don’t think you’ll get a butcher’s picnic…

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